Today marks the third Sunday of Lent…about halfway thru the season.  It began on Ash Wednesday (which fell this year on Valentines Day) and runs for forty days (not counting Sundays) through Holy Saturday.

Several years ago, I approached my two sons just before Ash Wednesday and said, “We’re about to begin the Christian season of Lent.  Do you know what this means?”  Without hesitation, my older son Alex, raised his hand and said, “Yes.  The filet-o-fish commercials will be back on TV…”

Of all seasons in the church year, Lent is perhaps the most misunderstood and negatively perceived.  Lent has gotten a bad rap.  Lent is not just about ashes, self-denial, fish suppers and solemn countenances.  Rather, it can be a positive, strengthening spiritual experience where we grow and flourish in the love of God and our neighbor.

As some of you know, three years ago I became an oblate (i.e., a lay-companion) to a monastery of Benedictine nuns in Bristow, VA.  I was invited by my oblate community to give a talk this coming Saturday on The Observance of Lent from the Rule of St. Benedict.  Today’s reflection is a preview to that presentation.

St. Benedict lived in Italy from about 480 – 540 AD and is considered to be the father of Western monasticism.  He drew up a Rule of Life for the monks and nuns in his communities which is now considered to be a model lifestyle for both religious and many lay people.  Much of our own Book of Common Prayer is based on St. Benedict’s Rule.

Here’s what Benedict had to say about Lent:

The life of a monastic ought to be a continuous Lent.  Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the community during the days of Lent to keep their lives most pure and wash away during these holy days the negligence of other times.

This will be worthily done if we restrain ourselves from all vices and give ourselves up to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and to abstinence.

During these days, therefore, let us increase somewhat the usual measure of our service, by private prayer and by abstinence in food and drink.  So that each of us of his own will may offer God “with joy of the Holy Spirit” something above the measure required of him.  Let each one deny themselves some food, drink, sleep, talking and idle jesting;and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

As I read this, my first impression was that there seemed to be a lot of “spiritual math” going on.  Certain tasks were being added to our daily routine, while other activities were being taken away, to help us become the persons we truly desire to be.

On the “minus” side, we’re asked to eliminate or minimize the things in our lives that get in the way of our spiritual growth.  The most common of these is fasting and the abstinence from excessive food and drink.

There’s a difference between fasting and abstinence.  Abstinence lowers the quality of the food (usually by removing the meat dish from a meal), while fasting reduces the quantity of food.  For example, a person who is fasting may eat a light breakfast, followed by one full meal at lunchtime and one half-meal in the evening.  Our Christian commitment to reducing our food and beverage intake during Lent can be done either way.  It’s usually done on Fridays in commemoration of the day that Jesus died on the cross.

Why would we as Christians want to do this?  Perhaps we could take the money saved on our weekly grocery or restaurant bill and donate it to the poor.  Or spend the extra time usually reserved for cooking or going out to dinner in prayer or on a community project.  The extra pounds shed from our waistlines by eating less is certainly also a benefit.  But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Pope Francis tweeted just yesterday that “Fasting makes us more alert and attentive to God and our neighbor and reminds us that He alone can satisfy our hunger.” 

Many years ago, my mother-in-law invited several of us over to dinner.  She served a pork roast (one of my favorite meals) but it was on a Friday during Lent and I was abstaining from meat.  So, I quietly heaped my plate with a healthy serving of vegetables and rice and proceeded to chow down.  She noticed that I hadn’t taken any of the meat and commented, “I don’t abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent.  It’s an outdated practice and it doesn’t really help anyone.”  I said nothing.  By the end of dinner, all the meat was gone.  My decision to pass up the most delicious part of the meal gave others the opportunity to enjoy it more.  And that made me feel glad.  At the very least, reducing or changing our eating habits during Lent is a small inconvenience; but it causes us to pause in our tracks and remember the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for humankind when He gave His life for us on the cross.  Is that too much to ask?

What other things might we “take away” during Lent?  For kids, it might be candy, sweets or video games.  For adults, it may be cigarettes or alcohol.  We could all benefit from less time on our phones and on social media.  If you find that you can’t step away entirely from Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, consider turning off your notification settings.  Previously reserved for emergencies and severe weather alerts, it seems like notification boxes now pop up whenever we turn on our phones to inform us about everything under the sun.  They create a false sense of urgency with the purpose of keeping us engaged with our electronic devices.  Do we really need to know right this second that so-and-so commented on someone’s photograph or that McDonalds is giving away free fries because the Washington Capitals scored in the first quarter?  (Ok, maybe the French fries…😉)

Benedict further advises that we should refrain from needless talking and idle jesting.  When we’re about to share the latest gossip or make a negative comment critical of someone else, perhaps we stop and think better of ourselves.  He also suggests that we deny ourselves a bit of sleep, maybe getting up earlier to spend time in solitude and prayer.  I’ve personally had some of the most meaningful prayer experiences in the middle of the night.

On the “plus” side of our equation, what activities can we add during the Lenten Season?  Benedict recommends that we spend more time in prayer – not just repeating words by rote, but engaging in relationship with our Lord until we’re moved to the point of tears.  Many churches offer additional opportunities for community worship during Lent.  We’re directed to engage in more Spiritual reading – of the Bible, certain prayers and the works of scriptural scholars.  Perhaps we join in a study group or a book club at church.  We can also engage in any number of good works; such as helping at a local homeless shelter, caring for our environment or visiting sick people in a nursing home.  The list goes on and on…

Finally, Benedict advises us to practice something called Compunction of Heart.
The two dictionary definitions of the word “compunction” are:

  • a feeling of uneasiness or anxiety of conscience caused by regret for doing something wrong or causing pain; contrition or remorse
  • Any uneasiness or hesitation about the rightness of an action

So “compunction” is that queasy feeling we get just before or immediately after we do something that tells us that maybe we’re not on the right path.  As humans, we tend to want to suppress these negative emotions through the “noise” of things like television, video games, excessive work or social media.  Benedict tells us to do the opposite:  stop, assess the situation and go deeper.

“Why do I feel the way that I do?  What’s the reasoning behind my words or actions?  Is what I’m doing best for myself and others?”

Getting back to our spiritual equation, Lent involves taking stock of how we use our time and clearing away the sludge in our souls to make room for that which is clean, fresh and shining beneath.

In today’s gospel, Jesus does some clearing out of his own.  He goes to the Temple to pray and be with his Father.  Upon arriving, he finds his Father’s house being used as an auction site, a market and a bank, with much noise and all manner of nonsense taking place.  So he grabs a whip and clears the place out.  It’s the one time in the Bible where we see Jesus get really angry.  I believe that Jesus first contemplated his actions and found them to be justified, even though He knew that these would be His first steps on the road to Calvary.

Several folks in this congregation have farms, or at least tend to a flower bed or a vegetable garden.  As Spring approaches, we know, almost instinctively, to prune our trees and clear away dead brush to encourage, and feed the fresh green foliage that lies beneath.

In front of my house, there’s a small flower patch.  Many years ago, on a sunny day in late March, I spotted some daffodils, hyacynths and other plants poking up beneath layers of dead leaves and branches.  I weeded out the old brush, poured on plant food and mulch, and gave it some water.  Within hours, it began to grow and thrive.  We had the start of a beautiful garden.  The boys’ friend Connor from down the street came over to see if they could come out and play.  After speaking with me, he glanced from the front door to the garden, and gasped in wonder, “Wow!  I didn’t know this was here!”

Isn’t that the way it is with our spiritual selves?  As we empty our cups, trim the soul and scrape away the sludge of a life turned slipshod, we make room for God’s grace, love and peace to enter in.  We may, in time, hear others exclaim, “Wow…I didn’t know you were here.”

I’d say that’s well worth a fish sandwich.

— Pamela Butler, Obl. SB

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